Although the Azerbaijani constitution sets the number of national parliamentary seats at 125, the actual number of deputies in the Azerbaijani parliament has always been 124. The empty seat belonged to district 122, located in Khankendi (Stepanakert), the capital of Karabakh, which is currently under the control of Armenian military formations. The loss of sovereignty over this territory has prevented the Azerbaijani authorities from holding nation-wide elections there. Not any more.
On August 12, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan voted in favor of restoring election district 122 and constituting its district election commission (Echo, August 13). Mazahir Panahov, the chairman of the CEC, believes that this act is aimed at restoring the constitutional rights of the citizens of Azerbaijan. Official Baku considers the Armenian residents of Karabakh to be its citizens. This decision therefore opens opportunities for them, as well as for the ethnic Azerbaijanis deported from Khankendi, to vote for the first time since the 1994 ceasefire.
“Until this time, efforts to do this have not been made. The CEC has received many complaints about this. Both commission members as well as the public have supported this decision. It is up to the citizens now to exercise their constitutional rights,” Panahov added (525-ci Qazet, August 17).
It is estimated that 10,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis have become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Khankendi, and they currently reside in Baku and surrounding areas. The Azerbaijani election code does not have a minimum turnout requirement to make elections valid. Thus, even if the Armenian residents of Khandenki boycott the elections, participation by the Azerbaijani IDPs would be sufficient to legitimize the results.
At the moment, it is not clear where the district election commission will be based and how they are planning to encourage the ethnic Armenian residents of Khankendi to vote. Plans call for the CEC, which has six members, including one ethnic Armenian, to prepare an appeal to all ethnic Armenians to exercise their constitutional rights. The CEC will also consider some produces to allow them to vote electronically. CEC secretary Natig Mammadov has said, “From now on the Azerbaijani citizens of Armenian ethnicity, living in Nagorno-Karabakh can vote” (525-ci Qazet, August 13).
Meanwhile, on August 16 the opposition daily Yeni Musavat reported that two candidates have been already nominated from this district. One of them is Isi Bagirov, the former deputy chief of the Khankendi air conditioner factory. Bagirov claims that he has had good relations with Armenian residents in Khankendi, including the current self-styled “president of the Nagorno-Karabakh republic,” Arkady Gukasyan, as well as with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, who also comes from Karabakh. Bagirov’s candidacy is supported by the united opposition coalition Azadliq (Freedom). The other candidate, Seymur Bayca, is running as an independent. The number of candidates will likely increase in the next week.
Interestingly, the CEC decision has the support of all interest groups in Azerbaijani society, including the most radical ones. Akif Nagi, chairman of the Karabakh Liberation Organization, the most pro-war civic organization in the country, has also welcomed the move. “Our organization proposed this idea last year, during the municipal elections,” says Nagi, “but at that time the CEC refused our proposal. Now, the decision of the CEC once again showed that Khankendi is an Azerbaijani town and that Nagorno-Karabakh is the territory of Azerbaijan. If Karabakh Armenians respect Azerbaijani laws, then their rights and freedoms will be provided. Just like their election rights have been provided for” (Sherg, August 17).
Another independent expert on elections, Eldar Ismaylov, head of the NGO “For the Sake of Civil Society,” also believes that the decision of the CEC was right. “This decision carries more of a propaganda purpose. Even if this time it will be impossible to hold elections there, it can be important for the future elections” (Sherg, August 16). Ismaylov also believes that electronic voting will not be sufficient, because not many ethnic Armenians in Karabakh have access to the Internet.
The Armenian residents of Khankendi will probably not participate in this vote. But for official Baku, the importance of the situation is more symbolic. Azerbaijani authorities want to show to the international community that they are pursuing a policy of engagement, rather than antagonizing the Armenian community of Karabakh. Thus, the situation is more political than practical. As negotiations over the Karabakh conflict continue in a positive course and both sides report some general agreements on certain issues, Azerbaijan wants to show to the Armenians that it is open to co-existence and mutual compromise. Similarly, last week the management of the newly established Public TV in Azerbaijan decided to produce programs in the Armenian language. These efforts will eventually demonstrate that the rights of Armenian minority are not violated in Azerbaijan.
Besides, with this act, Azerbaijani authorities seek to reduce the legitimacy of the “election” previously held by the unrecognized authorities of Karabakh. In the past, both the CEC and the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan, as well as international organizations such as the Council of Europe, UN, and OSCE, have criticized these unofficial elections, saying that they “hinder the peace process.”